Norman Vincent Peale once said, “Our happiness depends on the habit of mind we cultivate. So practice happy thinking every day.” That is easier said than done, but recently, I got to know a bright, young woman with jet-black hair and a megawatt smile who challenged me to re-think that opinion. I had heard about this bubbly, kind-hearted, brightly positive woman. I wanted to know more about how she managed to stay so tenacious and happy despite some extraordinary obstacles. Her name is Ragan Smith, and I won’t soon forget the day we met.
Ragan is a beach girl, working as an ambassador for The 30A Company in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. We sat down and quickly relaxed as we began to chat about her story. Although Ragan enjoys being social and spreading positivity, she doesn’t like being the center of attention. As fate would have it, the daughter of Delena Stuart Watson and Kirk Bedinger was born into a harsh spotlight, making her entrance into the world in Dallas, Texas, thirty-three years ago with two rare birth defects. Weighing in at nearly five pounds, Ragan was born with cloacal exstrophy, a condition in which the internal organs of the lower abdomen are exposed externally. Some of her organs were malformed or not completely functional. Another serious complication in her case was spina bifida. She was not given a good prognosis for survival.
I listened as Ragan told me about the first few weeks of her life. She was transferred to Children’s Hospital in Dallas where her parents met pediatric surgeon Darrell Hermann. Dr. Hermann had just completed a sixteen-hour surgery on another child. He then successfully performed the first surgery on Ragan, which lasted twelve hours. After almost two months in the hospital, she was able to go home. Her parents were informed at that time that she would most likely never sit up on her own, that she would never walk, and that she would need specialized round-the-clock care and require multiple surgeries as she grew. She told me with a coy smile, “I was sitting up by nine months, and I took my first steps on Easter Sunday when I was two years old.”
At home, she faced a different kind of life, but not one you might imagine. As she grew, she endured many surgeries to accommodate and correct issues caused by both conditions. This left Ragan vulnerable to infections and complications. As a result of hospitalizations and healing time, she faced not only continuous recovery but school and social challenges as well. With the loving support of her four siblings, her parents, and extended family, she pushed through these challenges and thrived, but there were issues. When Ragan was seven, she had increasing pain and difficulty with her digestion. Exploratory surgery revealed she had several holes in her large intestine, and eventually, she ended up in ICU with sepsis. Again, the doctors told her now-divorced parents her prognosis was not good. United in their love for Ragan, her parents remained amicable, and once again, they prayed for Ragan to heal. She was placed into a medically induced coma to allow her body to have the best chance.
“During the time I was in a coma, I had an out-of-body experience. I could see myself in the bed, I could see my parents talking to Dr. Hermann and crying. I didn’t understand it then, but somehow I came to know during these moments that if I survived, I would have a fulfilled life—I would make sure I lived a fulfilled life.” It wasn’t until years later that she would return to this hospital ICU with her mom, point out the room she had been in, and share the secret of her experience.
Upon hearing Ragan’s story, Delena told her daughter, “That was the day we were told to prepare for your funeral.” Ragan seemed to understand then and there her life was meant for something special.
Ragan had lived until the age of ten with her spine at a 78-degree curve, and at eleven, she had another major surgery to install a Harrington rod for spinal correction. Initially, this left her in excruciating pain, and though her back is much improved, she has no feeling in her left leg from the knee down. As if life wasn’t challenging enough, she suffered the tragic loss of her beloved step-father to a motorcycle crash when she was 21.
Ragan has battled through, and though she said there are times of physical and emotional pain, she loves her life. Ragan has spent her time serving others with her mom who started Ragan’s Hope, a nonprofit organization to support families of children with birth defects and traumatic injuries. As fate would have it, another familiar pediatric surgeon, Dr. Craig Hobar, started a not-for-profit organization called LEAP to help children needing specialized surgeries. The two organizations joined forces, and through LEAP and Ragan’s Hope, she and her mother have joined Dr. Hobar and his team on multiple mission trips to India, Haiti, Ecuador, Mexico, Belize, and Zimbabwe. Ragan told me, “On one trip to India alone, we evaluated several hundred children and performed nearly one hundred surgeries.”
It was on one of these trips to India that Ragan met Jason Smith. Jason, also from Dallas, was involved with similar mission work. He made his permanent home in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, with his young son Ethan, and in 2015, he and Ragan were married.
Ragan has always been drawn to the beauty of the coast and says she somehow knew she would end up near the water. But her real love became Ethan. “Once when I was a little girl out with my grandfather, I noticed a pregnant woman and I said, ‘I can’t wait to grow up and be like her, to have a baby and be a mom.’” Her grandfather gently explained to Ragan that she wouldn’t be able to have children of her own, but only because someday there would be a child who needed her. She found that child in her now legally adopted son, Ethan.
Ragan’s challenges continued a few years ago when she stepped on a mesquite thorn, which she did not feel. It penetrated the bone of her left heel. She returned to Dallas for surgery and, due to a massive infection, nearly lost her foot. I asked Ragan how she managed to get through this time after everything she had already experienced. “I knew I couldn’t control my circumstances, and there were some dark days. I just had to get back on my feet, walk to the end of the hall outside my hospital room, then walk down to the cafeteria the next day,” Ragan said. “I just set a goal that I would get home and walk the beach again with my child, and embrace the beauty and nature that surrounds us. We live in such an amazing place!”
Ragan wanted me to know her loving parents never adopted the attitude that their child would be different.
Though she faced upwards of seventy surgeries by the time she was ten years old, her parents never faltered in her care, both physical and emotional.
“My parents said, ‘We are not going to sit her in the corner and say she can’t do something. She will be able to do anything and everything anyone else can do,’ and I think this is a huge testimony to the person I am today.”
As our time came to a close, I looked at this pretty 5-ft tall, 100-pound powerhouse of a woman and realized I had been sitting across from one extraordinary human. Not because of her birth defects, but because of her resilience and positive attitude—and that great big smile. I asked her what she might say to people struggling in these current times, feeling like there might not be an end to their trials and tribulations.
“I try to look at life with ONE CHOICE, and that is to face whatever is before me like tomorrow is not going to come.
It’s hard, even more so in these uncertain times. People are struggling, people are seeing no way out of situations, but if we would look at life with the attitude that the best, most rewarding moments come after struggle—wow, how beautifully true. We just need to endure the struggle to receive the unimaginable reward yet to come.”